It seems as though no matter what Tom Gilbert does out on the ice, in most fans minds, he simply isn't good enough. There is little doubt that he has become a whipping boy for all things wrong with the Oilers defence. Much like Shawn Horcoff and Nikolai Khabibulin, who take the fans venom when it comes to struggles upfront or between the pipes. Not surprisingly, the three have some of the largest salaries on the team and hence much is expected from them by the Edmonton faithful. That being said, if you were to look at Gilbert's body of work since the mid-point of last season, there is very little to complain about. In fact, it would be far more worrisome to see where this team would be without him.
Opening night was a perfect example of what looks to be a new and improved Tom Gilbert. He still is being asked to play far too much but at the moment they have no choice. Playing over 26 minutes against the Pens on Sunday night, there were very few occasions that stood out where he made the wrong play. He has gone from a mistake just waiting to happen, to being calm and composed out on the ice and is no longer cursed with making a bad pass or poor decision on nearly every shift, as he was prone to do at times in the past. While the minutes are still huge, the coaching staff made the effort of putting him in scenarios that he would be most comfortable in. Not usually the best choice on the PK, Gilbert was on the second unit kill and saw just under six minutes on the penalty kill. This on a night that the Oilers were short handed over 16 minutes, and fellow D men Ladislav Smid and Theo Peckham played almost ten minutes a piece on the kill. Same thing on the power play, as Gilbert logged less minutes then both Cam Barker, Jeff Petry and Magnus Paajarvi, who was the other player used on the point on the man advantage. Yet, when it came to 5-on-5 play, no Edmonton skater saw the ice more. Doesn't seem like a big thing but it really was. By managing a players minutes in such a manner, it puts a lot less pressure on the player and should result in a better overall performance. That is exactly what we saw out of Gilbert in the home opener.
The Minnesota native has always struggled when he asked to do too much but he finally seems to have found that balance of playing within his limitations. At times he has still been forced out of that comfort zone but again, that has more to do with injuries to other personnel and less to do with the choices the now veteran defenceman makes out on the ice. You rarely if ever see that awful cross-ice pass that had almost become a staple in his repertoire a couple of years ago. Instead, you see a defenceman take the time to move the puck out and make the simple play. If the only play is to chip it up the boards, then he chips it up the boards. It is not earth shattering stuff. He no longer rushes things and it looks as though Gilbert has finally become confident in his own decision making.
With the absence of Ryan Whitney on the backend, Tom Gilbert has been forced into uncomfortable situations over the last calender year. Many times he was in over his head but it appears that those tough lessons have started to turn his overall game around. Offensively he's not Paul Coffey and defensively he's not Jason Smith but Gilbert has started to excel at both ends of the ice, playing a brand of hockey that suits his skill set. It may not be what many fans want to see but it is effective nonetheless. Instead of using him as a scapegoat with everything that goes wrong with the Oilers defence, fans should perhaps learn to appreciate what he does out on the ice and how important Tom Gilbert has become to the overall success of the Edmonton Oilers.